Singapore: One of East Asia’s Best Destinations
Singapore is a tiny country with plenty of economic muscle. Unfortunately, it is most often associated with authoritarian laws (you could get a ticket for chewing gum or neglecting to flush a public toilet) and a sterile urban atmosphere created by malls, modern buildings and faux foliage.
While it is true that the grit that gives places like Jakarta, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and even Hong Kong their charm is absent from Singapore’s main streets, it is untrue that the place is completely sterile. (Singapore is like “Disneyland with the death penalty,” according to sci-fi writer William Gibson.)
In many ways, the Lion City is the ideal East Asian destination. It is a cultural melting pot with Chinese, Indian and Malay influences. All these cultures are well represented in the culinary scene, making Singapore one of the world’s greatest food destinations. Nightlife is surprisingly raucous, with weekend revelry often stretching past sun-up the following day.
If you know where to look, there are plenty of narrow alleys, exotic shopping spots and exciting street life to experience, all of which lend Singapore a vibrant atmosphere to sate venturesome tourists.
Eating Cheaply, Eating Well
Singapore’s culinary influences come from all corners of the Asian continent. Malay, Indian and Chinese cooking styles can be found in restaurants and food court stalls. Street food is excellent, even though, for the most part, it doesn’t actually take place on the street. Hawker Centers, food courts with stalls run by individual owners, are the best places to eat cheaply and well. It is easy to find meals for less than $5. Food is a major part of Singapore’s identity and the Hawker Centers are where it is celebrated by locals, regardless of race and/or economic status.
The Newton Hawkers Center is the most centrally-located and easily accessible of these eating emporiums, but it is not necessarily the best nor the cheapest. Chinatown’s Maxwell Road Hawker Center is a popular alternative and is known for its high-quality fare.
Each district has its own Hawker Centers. As a general rule, the further you get from the city center, the cheaper prices become. Hawker stalls in more residential areas cater mainly to locals and are more reasonably priced than those in highly trafficked locations.
Singapore’s nightlife scene is unexpectedly energetic. The Riverside areas of Boat Quay and Clarke Quay are home to world-class clubs, such as the famous Zouk. Notable DJs from around the world are often found spinning here and at the other clubs along the river. Cover charges can be pricey, but the party usually lasts well into the night, with last call stretching to four, or even six, in the morning on weekends.
For a more local pub experience, Little India’s Racecourse Road features a set of low-key watering holes that will appeal to those looking for something slightly more authentic.
The somewhat infamous Geylang District is home to some of the cheapest bars and the best atmosphere in Singapore. However, it is also home to the city’s largest red light district. Many people are surprised to know that prostitution enjoys a semi-legal status in the country. However, the industry is not advertised openly. Geylang’s legitimate bars, restaurants and karaoke parlors offer a good, down-to-earth time that is much more authentic than the glitzy partying that takes place in the Riverside area. Most of the prostitution takes place on even numbered streets (lorongs) along Geylang Road, meaning it can be avoided altogether by simply opting for establishments on odd numbered streets.
The ultimate cheap sleeping option is to take advantage of campgrounds located on the beaches of Singapore. Camping facilities have showers and bathrooms and are free for a week. Changi Beach Park and East Coast Park both have campgrounds.
There is a network of hostels throughout the city offering dorm beds in the $20 range, though it is probably better to inquire about lodging at guesthouses in Geylang, Chinatown and Little India. You will be able to find a private place to lay your head in the $30-$40 range. If you are staying at a family-owned guesthouse, it can be worthwhile to ask for a long-term discount if you plan to stay more than a few days. Once you are sure the place is acceptable, offer to pay for a week up front in exchange for a discount. This will only work at family-run places, not at brand name hotels like Hotel 81, a chain offering $50 per night rooms. It is helpful to keep in mind that there really aren’t any “bad areas” in Singapore, so you can opt for a cheaper neighborhood without having to be overly concerned about anything beyond the usual petty theft that can occur anywhere in the world.
Orchard Road is the center of Singapore’s world famous retail scene. If you are looking for top-shelf brands and don’t mind high price tags, this miles-long street will sate your retail needs. However, if you are looking for something out of the ordinary or if you want to take a more frugal approach to shopping, the districts of Chinatown and Little India are alternatives.
Chinatown’s Pearl Center is a maze-like complex with shops selling everything from collectables to vitamins to socks. If you want some personality in your shopping venue, along with evidence that Singapore is not completely sterile, then this should most definitely be your first choice. Little India’s Mustafa Center is a department store with virtually any products that you could want at the lowest prices in the city. The nearby Little India Arcade is like taking a trip to the subcontinent itself, with shops and restaurants catering to Singapore’s large Indian population.
Especially in central areas, Singapore lives up to its reputation as a personality-less metropolis. But you only have to step into a peripheral neighborhood, side street, pub or Hawker Center to see that this diverse city does not deserve its negative billing.
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